Archive for the 'G.K. Chesterton' Category

(More) Chesterton on Birth Control

… If [the Birth-Controller] can prevent his servants from having families, he need not support those families. Why the devil should he?

If anybody doubts that this is the very simple motive, let him test it by the very simple statements made by various Birth-Controllers like the Dean of St. Paul’s. They never do say that we suffer from a too bountiful supply of bankers or that cosmopolitan financiers must not have such large families. They do not say that the fashionable throng at Ascot wants thinning, or that it is desirable to decimate the people dining at the Ritz or the Savoy…

But the Birth-Controllers have not the smallest desire to control that jungle. It is much too dangerous a jungle to touch. It contains tigers. They never do talk about a danger from the comfortable classes. The Gloomy Dean is not gloomy about there being too many Dukes; and naturally not about there being too many Deans. He is not primarily annoyed with a politician for having a whole population of poor relations, though places and public salaries have to found for all relations. Political Economy means that everybody except politicians must be economical.

The Birth-Controller does not bother about all these things, for the perfectly simple reason that it is not such people that he wants to control. What he wants to control is the populace, and he practically says so. He always insists that a workman has no right to have so many children, or that a slum is perilous because it produces so many children. The question he dreads is “Why has not the workman a better wage? Why has not the slum family a better house?” His way of escaping from it is to suggest, not a larger house, but a smaller family. The landlord or the employer says in his hearty and handsome fashion: “You really cannot expect me to deprive myself of my money. But I will make a sacrifice. I will deprive myself of your children.”

— G. K. Chesterton, quoted from Gilbert Magazine, Volume 12 Number 8 (July/August 2009)

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The Uniqueness of Man

leonardo-study-of-manI have no problem with the theory of evolution. God could have created our bodies in an evolutionary way as well as any other way. The existence of the soul united to our bodies is a totally different matter. However, if we focus on the biological, we have much in common with our primate friends; but this is saying much more than is often supposed. It is quite the logical leap to say that because man’s body has evolved from the animals, that he is also one of the animals. Man also has the ability to reason, and this is what primarily separates him from the beasts. G. K. Chesterton also noted that what separates man from beast is man’s penchant for dogma – “Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas.” There is so much that separates man from animal: the propensity to worship, the desire to paint chapel ceilings, the romantic instinct to compose poetry, the soaring spirit that composes symphonies, and so on. There is indeed a missing link, but as Chesterton also noted, “If there were a missing link in a real chain, it would not be a chain at all.” As I said, I have no problem with the theory of evolution, but the conclusions sometimes drawn from this theory suffer from an astonishing amount of fuzzy thinking. To think that man is only a beast requires a myopic focus on the biological, but what else are we to expect from a culture that puts such a shallow focus on the body. Chesterton paints the picture far better than I could, so I will get out of the way and let him speak.

From the final chapter of Orthodoxy (GKC Collected Works, Vol. 1, Ignatius, 1986):

If you leave off looking at books about beasts and men, if you begin to look at beasts and men then (if you have any humour or imagination, any sense of the frantic or the farcical) you will observe the startling thing is not how like man is to the brutes, but how unlike he is. It is the monstrous scale of his divergence that requires an explanation. That man and brute are like is, in a sense, a truism; but that being so like they should then be so insanely unlike, that is the shock and the enigma. That an ape has hands is far less interesting to the philosopher than the fact that having hands he does next to nothing with them; does not play knuckle-bones or the violin; does not carve marble or carve mutton. People talk of barbaric architecture and debased art. But elephants do not build colossal temples of ivory even in rococo style; camels do not paint even bad pictures, though equipped with the material of many camel’s-hair brushes. Certain modern dreamers say that ants and bees have a society superior to ours. They have, indeed, a civilization; but that very truth only reminds us that it is an inferior civilization. Who ever found an ant-hill decorated with the statues of celebrated ants? Who has seen a bee-hive carved with the images of gorgeous queens of old? No; the chasm between man and other creatures may have a natural explanation, but it is a chasm. We talk of wild animals; but man is the only wild animal. It is man that has broken out. All other animals are tame animals; following the rugged respectability of the tribe or type. All other animals are domestic animals; man alone is ever undomestic, either as a profligate or a monk. So that this first superficial reason for materialism is, if anything, a reason for its opposite; it is exactly where biology leaves off that all religion begins.

Universal Patriotism

G. K. Chesterton is uncomfortable with both pessimism and optimism in the way that they are commonly defined. This is not such a novel view since we all assume that there is a “middle way” between the despair of the pessimist and the naivete of the optimist. Chesterton’s real insight is that the real problem with both the optimist and the pessimist is that each comments on the universe as a critic, as one looking over a piece of art in a gallery. A critic is one who, supposedly, critiques something from the outside as a “impartial observer”; but such an idea is ludicrous when critiquing the cosmos. We cannot stand outside of the universe and judge it impartially, for we are a very part of this universe. There is no outside of all that is.

Chesterton says that his attitude towards the cosmos is not something akin to pessimism or optimism, but rather patriotism. In Orthodoxy (GKC Collected Works Vol. 1, Ignatius, 1986) he writes:

Whatever the reason, it seemed and still seems to me that that our attitude towards life can be better expressed in terms of a kind of military loyalty than in terms of criticism and approval. My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty. The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with a flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more…

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing – say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne of the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico; in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico; for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico; to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles… If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual historyof mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

Misplaced Humility

I am reading through Orthodoxy a second time – and yes, it is even better the second go round – and one of the points that Chesterton makes is that of humility being put in exactly the wrong place.

But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.

The chapter title from which I am quoting is aptly named “The Suicide of Thought”. In the preceding chapter Chesterton expresses his dismay at the popular exhortation that “you will do well if you believe in yourself”. Ha! I have always cringed at this exhortation myself. For the life of me, I don’t even know what it means. To believe is to have faith. I know how to have faith in God or even (to a certain extent) faith in others; but I have no idea how to have faith in myself. As Chesterton so wonderfully says,

Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Supermen. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.

It is exactly this conviction in one’s own abilities that Chesterton is referring to when he says that humility is in the wrong place. Instead of being a bit unsure of our own abilities, we are extremely unsure of our own beliefs. We have “opinions” and “points of view”, but never a conviction; and it is here that dogmas cease and religion (not to mention mankind) is weakened at its core. Without conviction the Creed becomes an embarrassment. There is nothing quite so pathetic as “it is my opinion that God became man for us men and for our salvation.” You might as well be honest and say, “it might be true that God became man, I’m really not sure.” To which the candid atheist might reply, “then you admit that you might be delusional.” Chesterton could not put it better when he says,

At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern skeptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance.

Take that post-modernist scum!

The Many Wonders of the World

sword-of-king-arthurOne of G. K. Chesterton’s most enduring themes is that of wonder. I have noted this before, but it seems to me that Chesterton’s articulation of wonder is one of his greatest gifts to us of a more modern and mechanical age. Along with fairy-tales, Chesterton often uses children as examples of what true wonder looks like. Of course, in the end, fairy-tales and children go hand in hand, for fairy-tales are written for the amusement of children; but this is precisely what Chesterton takes issue with. Fairy-tales ought not to astonish and amuse only children. They ought to astonish and amuse us all. Our world is a very strange place, if we only have the eyes to see. The only reason we think our world is mundane is because we are so used to it. Just think of the many wonders in creation: the eternal procession of Orion through the winter night sky, the fire lilies blooming in triumphant praise during late summer, the hordes of prison striped zebras escaping into the freedom of the African plains, the wild haired cat lurking about in my living room; all of which could come out of any fairytale if they were not the stuff of the “real world”.

Chesterton writes about this childlike wonder in Heretics (The Collected Works of GKC, Vol 1, Ignatius, 1986):

The child is, indeed, in these, and many other matters, the best guide. And in nothing is the child so righteously childlike, in nothing does he exhibit more accurately the sounder order of simplicity, than in the fact that he sees everything with a simple pleasure, even the complex things. The false type of naturalness harps always on the distinction between the natural and the artificial. The higher kind of naturalness ignores that distinction. To the child the tree and the lamp-post are as natural and as artificial as each other; or rather, neither of them are natural but both supernatural. For both are splendid and unexplained. The flower with which God crowns the one, and the flame with which Sam the lamplighter crowns the other, are equally of the gold of fairy-tales. In the middle of the wildest fields the most rustic child is, ten to one, playing at steam-engines. And the only spiritual or philosophical objection to steam-engines is not that men pay for them or work at them, or make them very ugly, or even that men are killed by them; but merely that men do not play at them. The evil is that the childish poetry of clock-work does not remain. The wrong is not that engines are too much admired, but that they are not admired enough. The sin is not that engines are mechanical, but that men are mechanical.

Classic Chesterton

Oh, this is good. If you enjoy Chesterton’s style of writing and thinking, you will love Heretics. If you don’t, even in the least, it would be hell to read even a page. What follows in classic Chesterton. This is why I have a smile on my face every time I read Chesterton, and why I cannot go very long without reading something of his. I realize I quote Chesterton a lot, but I have given up apologizing for that long ago.

He [Bernard Shaw] has even been infected to some extent with the primary intellectual weakness of his new master, Nietzsche, the strange notion that the greater and stronger a man was the more he would despise other things. The greater and stronger a man is the more he would be inclined to prostrate himself before a periwinkle. That Mr. Shaw keeps a lifted head and a contemptuous face before the colossal panorama of empires and civilizations, this does not in itself convince one that he sees things as they are. I should be most effectively convinced that he did if I found him staring with religious astonishment at his own feet. “What are those two beautiful and industrious beings,” I can imagine him murmuring to himself, “whom I see everywhere, serving me I know not why? What fairy godmother bade them come trotting out of elfland when I was born? What god of the borderland, what barbaric god of legs, must I propitiate with fire and wine, lest they run away with me?”

Your Philosophy Does Matter

The following are some of the most entertaining words I have read yet by G. K. Chesterton. They come from the opening pages of Heretics, a book which I am very tardy in reading. With his typical wit and lucidity, Chesterton highlights the changing definitions of “heresy” and “orthodoxy”, as well as our modern disdain for philosophies that explain everything. “We will have no generalizations,” says GKC.

What follows comes from the opening three paragraphs of Heretics (Ignatius, GKC Collected Works Vol 1, 1986).

Nothing more strangely indicates an enormous and silent evil of modern society than the extraordinary use which is made nowadays of the word “orthodox”. In former days the heretic was proud of not being a heretic. It was the kingdoms of the world and the police and the judges who were the heretics. He was orthodox. He had no pride in having rebelled against them; they had rebelled against him. The armies with their cruel security, the kings with their cold faces, the decorous process of the State, the reasonable process of law – all these like sheep had one astray. The man was proud of being orthodox, was proud of being right. If he stood alone in a howling wilderness he was more than a man; he was a church. He was the centre of the universe; it was round him that the stars swung. All the tortures torn out of forgotten hells could not make him admit that he was heretical. But a few modern phrases have made him boast of it. He says, with a conscious laugh, “I suppose I am very heretical,” and looks round for applause. The word “heresy” not only means no longer being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous. The word “orthodoxy” not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong. All this can mean one thing, and one thing only. It means that people care less for whether they are philosophically right. For obviously a man ought to confess himself crazy before he confess himself heretical. The Bohemian, with a red tie, ought to pique himself on his orthodoxy. The dynamiter, laying a bomb, ought to feel that, whatever else he is, at least he is orthodox.

It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe. That was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed all together in its object. But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. That is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the the great revolutionary period. General theories are everywhere contemned; the doctrine of the Rights of Man is dismissed with the doctrine of the Fall of Man. Atheism itself is too theological for us to-day. Revolution itself is too much of a system; liberty itself is too much of a restraint. We will have no generalizations…

Examples are scarcely needed of this total levity on the subject of cosmic philosophy. Examples are scarcely needed to show that, whatever else we think of as affecting practical affairs, we do not think that it matters whether a man is a pessimist or an optimist, a Cartesian or Hegelian, a materialist or a spiritualist. Let me, however, take a random instance. At any innocent tea-table we may easily hear a man say, “Life is not worth living.” We regard it as we regard the statement that it is a fine day; nobody thinks that it can possibly have any serious effect on the man or on the world. And yet if that utterance were really believed, the world would stand on its head. Murderers would be given medals for saving men from life; fireman would be denounced for keeping men from death; poisons would be used as medicines; doctors would be called in when people were well; the Royal Humane Society would be rooted out like a horde of assassins. Yet we never speculate as to whether the conversational pessimist will strengthen or disorganize society; for we are convinced that theories do not matter.


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